On the first Friday of March 2016, we are having breakfast with author Shauna Roberts. Shauna is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop and a past winner of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers’ Grant. She has had three novels published. Two are historical novels set in ancient Mesopotamia; Claimed by the Enemy recently won the 2014 National Readers Choice Award for Novel with Romantic Elements and the 2015 Romancing the Novel contest in the “Ancient/Medieval/Renaissance” category. Her newest novel is the fantasy Ice Magic, Fire Magic, set in a sentient land with wild magic, ancient evil spirits, two species of humans, and, most fantastic of all, a government that serves its citizens well.
For this warm December breakfast, I’m having a boiled egg on raw spinach with banana slices and blueberries sprinkled with chia seeds. Shauna, what are you having?
At home, I eat Cheerios with unsweetened almond milk every day while reading the day’s funnies in the newspaper. No matter what happens later, my breakfast routine ensures that at least one good thing happens that day.
I try to never run out of Cheerios. Unfortunately, my husband dislikes seeing more than two Cheerios boxes in the pantry, so when I’m not around, he hides/moves them elsewhere. When I finish a box and can’t find any backups in what I consider normal places to store Cheerios, I go to the store for more.
Then my husband comes home from work, looks in the pantry, and becomes peeved at the new Cheerios boxes. “What are these doing here?” he asks, as if I’m storing durian fruit, dried elephant turds, and pickled bat heads in the pantry instead of Cheerios.
I explain that I ran out. Then, like a stage magician, he flings open an apparently random cabinet door with a flourish (he has fifteen or twenty hiding/storage places for Cheerios), and voilà! The missing Cheerios are revealed! (Or not, if they’re too far back in the cabinet for me to see.)
Luckily, we rarely have any drama over milk or the funnies.
Hey, I like durian fruit! So tell us about your writing process from concept to draft to revision.
I usually start with a setting or a theme. Then I consider what characters would suit that setting or theme as protagonists or antagonists and what their quests and goals might be. I usually don’t need to choose their sex or their traits; characters form in my mind already male or female, gay or straight, tall or short, skinny or plump, and of a particular age group. Often, their backstory arrives with them as well.
I next pull out the appropriate research books or go on Amazon to find the books I need to create an authentic, compelling setting and plot. I do a lot of research before actually beginning chapter 1, although as I read I jot down scene ideas, motifs, more backstory, ideas for disasters to befall the characters (for one novel I kept a long list entitled “Things that can go wrong on a pilgrimage”), interesting locations or foods to work in, et cetera. I keep particularly detailed notes on the most important aspects of setting, such as geology, geography, religion, and structure of society. For a historical novel, I note the limitations on and privileges of women of different social classes.
I do detailed research even when writing a fantasy story or novel. Even though I’m in some sense making it up, the physical world needs to follow the laws of physics and chemistry. For example, when I lived in Bordeaux (twice), I learned that two dozen or more factors influence which grape varieties grow best and where. Obviously, I will now never have a character plant a vineyard in a shady, brackish swamp.
When I can, I base fantasy landscapes on real places. That way, I can skip most steps of worldbuilding: by using real places, the ecosystem works; towns and cities are in the right places given the geology, geography, and history; the rainfall pattern is correct given the winds, the season, and the location of mountains; and I know when different crops should be planted and harvested.
When I start writing, I already know the plot’s beginning, middle, and possible ends as well the characters’ growth arcs. I plot a few chapters and then write with my editor’s brain turned off; when I come near the end of my outline, I extend it several chapters. As the shampoo instructions say, I repeat as necessary until I finish the first draft.
Along the way, my critique group reads the chapters and provides feedback, which I incorporate one way or another. (A suggestion may make no sense, but because my critique partners are sharp, I know something is terribly wrong somewhere when a comment or suggestion is way off base.)
Then the hard work begins: wrestling the illogical, inconsistent, slippery, gooey mess into a story that makes sense, has exciting twists, and has characters who stay in character. I do many, many revisions.
This process works well for me because I’m a much better editor than a writer. This way, I get the basic story and characters down quickly and can focus on making it better and better.
Well said! Tell us about Ice Magic, Fire Magic. Why this book, why now?
“Now” is definitely the wrong term for IMFM; aspects of the book have been marinating in my head for more than 40 years.
Its genesis was the “good Kirk–bad Kirk” episode of the original Star Trek. When Kirk split into two people, one good and one evil, only the evil Kirk could make decisions or command respect. Good Kirk was a trembling, cringing mass of doubts who could not function at even a basic level. Of course, the writers had only 50 minutes for the story, but even so, I was annoyed for decades that they didn’t show a more nuanced portrayal of the two Kirks.
Another time, I came across the term “public servant” and wondered what it would be like if politicians were true servants of the people, putting our interests ahead of their own.
I started IMFM circa 2003 during a book-in-a-week challenge. I used the challenge to run Fila, a wholly good character, through tough situations and see how she did. Fila was the leader, the Servant, who was constantly reminded of her status because she had to go barefoot at all times.
My works almost always deal with racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and/or other kinds of bigotry and the notion of “the other.” Because readers arrive with strong views on these topics, I must circumvent or undermine their preconceptions. In IMFM, I do so by:
—having two symbiotic species of humans, one with magic and one with technology. The two species depend totally on each other for survival, yet trouble starts in IMFM when a bigot takes power. (Just for the record, I submitted the novel to Hadley Rille Books in 2011.)
—giving women the magic of creation and men the magic of destruction. They, too, complement each other and must depend on each other. The heroine, though, struggles with grasping how destruction can be anything but evil.
—giving some people handicaps. Some were born with them; others acquired them.
Because I started IMFM for a BIAW (Book in a Week) challenge, I used a standard faux-Medieval setting (which I’ll make up an abbreviation for: SFMS) so that I could write quickly without worldbuilding. I set those chapters aside after BIAW.
As I grew as a reader, I stopped reading most fantasy novels with an SFMS and started seeking out those with more-imaginative settings.
As I grew as a writer, I realized that the SFMS did my story a disservice. I pondered what to do for a few years and then reimagined the setting totally, putting the story in a version of southwestern Ohio that mixes possible future states with its prehuman past. I felt the story and the setting now belonged together.
I’m always annoyed when characters do not act as people in their setting should—city dwellers who notice cracked plaster and a scurrying cockroach instead of the beautiful architecture and variety of cool shops and restaurants around them; New Orleaneans who spend all their time in the Vieux Carré instead of their own beloved neighborhoods; nonmodern people who don’t know the names of—or worse yet, don’t even notice—trees, herbs for medicine and for cooking, agricultural tools, the meaning of bird calls and behaviors, etc. In IMFM, people can ride horses with at least some competence, they walk almost everywhere, they can find their way out of the woods when they’re lost, they know the names of the animals and plants around them, and they otherwise behave like people who do not spend all day inside sealed buildings.
Another pet peeve: Despite much progress, some fantasy books still ignore or denigrate traditional women’s arts and crafts and duties, just because of their association with women. It’s great that women in fantasy do all sorts of things now . . . but I wish they did a lot less fighting, insulting each other, not changing their clothes for days on end, hanging out with male friends, smoking cigars, and other traditionally male activities. (Sorry, guys.) So in IMFM, women make magic by weaving, embroidering, knotting, knitting, crocheting, and doing other fun things with fibers of beautiful colors and lovely textures.
And then when I threw in a bathtub’s worth of favorite things: secret passages, a lonely evil spirit, a brainy (and brawny) hero, an introverted heroine, a volcano, ancient books, genetic aberrations in magical talents, an ancient prophecy that must be solved, and more.
Unfortunately, I failed to work in any monkeys. Every story is better with monkeys.
Anything triggered by Star Trek grabs my attention! Let me pour more water for us both, Shauna. What did you find fun/intriguing about writing Ice Magic, Fire Magic, and what was difficult?
I loved making the villain, who does terrible, terrible things, a sympathetic character and providing a good motivation for him each time he sheds another bit of his morals so that one thinks that perhaps one might react the same—an uncomfortable feeling, even for the author!
The hardest part probably was finding and removing all the “Lady This” and “Lord That” and mentions of castles and other such leftover from the SFMS version.
Tell us about your next project and when it may be published.
There’s a long answer and a short answer. The long answer: From 2010 to 2015, I was increasingly sick and eventually had to stop writing altogether. During that time, I did what I could when I was up to it, coming up with ideas and scenes and doing research for when I finally got a diagnosis and a treatment. Now that that has happened and I am better, I have material to write two sequels to Claimed by the Enemy as well as an unrelated historical novel set in ancient Mesopotamia, a historical novel set in ancient Nubia, and two contemporary romances set in southern France.
I change my mind from day to day which novel to start next; I am eager to write them all RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately, I have only two hands.
Another possibility: It would make sense to revisit a fantasy novel that I finished several years ago, the novel of my heart, in fact; do another revision to bring it up to my current standards; and either offer it to Hadley Rille Books or self-publish it. The short answer: I may have my next book out by the end of the year, but maybe not.
Thank you for visiting with us, Shauna. She invites us to sign up for her newsletter at http://eepurl.com/Fr3Hf!
Learn more about Shauna Roberts and her books at:
Like Mayflies in a Stream http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004BA5GK4/
The Measure of a Man http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00MD7NW1W
Claimed by the Enemy http://goo.gl/EbpyD
Ice Magic, Fire Magic http://goo.gl/uFhU47
Website and blog: http://www.ShaunaRoberts.com
personal Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/shaunaroberts
author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Shauna-Roberts-author-194876117254102/?ref=hl
To sign up for Shauna’s author newsletter: http://eepurl.com/Fr3Hf